Dr. Thomas Scheck, Associate Professor of Theology at Ave Maria University, is a prolific translator. He has published eight volumes of translations of patristic texts, he has a ninth in production, and a tenth, a student-involved translation project, is in the works. His most recent translation, St. Jerome: Commentary on Isaiah; Origen Homilies 1-9 on Isaiah (2015) was published earlier this year as Volume 68 in the Newman Press Ancient Christian Writers series. The volume is over 1000 pages in length.
In the Nineteenth Century, a 38-volume English translation series of the Church Fathers left out Jerome’s commentaries because of their length. “For Jerome,” Scheck remarked, “it was a real loss, because his greatest works are considered to be his commentaries on Scripture.” Earlier Catholic scholars were familiar enough with Latin that they could read Jerome in his original language. But recently, Latin has fallen by the wayside, and Jerome’s work was in danger of further neglect—that is, until Scheck came along. “When all is said and done,” he said, “a group of AMU students and I will be responsible for translating approximately 75% of Jerome’s commentaries into English.”
Scheck took an unconventional route to his calling as translator of patristic texts. He grew up Catholic, but became a Baptist during his first two years as an undergraduate at Iowa State University. He left ISU and transferred to the Moody Bible Institute, where he earned a B.A. in Bible/Theology. Scheck went on to earn a M.Div. magna cum laude from the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He worked as a pastor, got married in 1991, and began raising the support needed for him to move his family to Germany, where he felt called to be a missionary. “I discovered the Church Fathers as a protestant pastor,” Scheck said. He would use the ancient Christian texts in his theological studies and as aids in his preparation for preaching.
Once in Leipzig, Germany, Scheck sought out the nearest university library, which happened to be down the street. There, he found a new German translation of Origin’s Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. “I thought that reading through this work in German would be a great way for me to learn German,” he recalled, “especially the theological words I’d need to be an effective missionary.” Scheck acquired the five-volume Latin/German edition. With little knowledge of Latin, and an incipient understanding of German, he worked through the lengthy text. Over the next five years, Scheck learned the German and then switched over to mastering the Latin. “Here’s what I experienced,” he said. “The process of learning German well helped me in understanding Latin; once I learned the German, I could look over at the Latin and pretty much understand how the Latin sentence was working.”
When Scheck returned to the United States, he submitted his translation to a publisher. The Catholic University of America Press accepted his work, the first-ever English translation of Origen’s Commentary on Romans. Meanwhile, Scheck looked for work as a pastor. When that failed, he began to apply to graduate schools. “I think that it was a feather in my cap, it stood out in my application, that I had received a contract for a translation,” he said. He was accepted into an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program at the University of Iowa in 1999. His first translation was published two years later as Volume 103 in CUA Press’ The Fathers of the Church series (followed by a second part, Vol. 104, in 2002).
While in graduate school, Scheck reverted to the Catholic Church. “I felt at home with the spirituality of the Church Fathers,” he explained. “The more I read the Church Fathers, the more I saw where Catholic theology comes from—it comes ultimately from the Bible. It can be burdensome to be a protestant pastor; since it sometimes feels like everything depends on you in terms of guiding the local congregation. With the Catholic Church, you have two thousand years of tradition to fall back on. It relieves the burden of interpretation from the individual priest or pastor.”
Scheck completed his interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Religion, Classics and Philosophy from the University of Iowa in 2004. He met Dr. Anne Barbeau Gardiner, Professor Emerita of the Department of English, John Jay College, CUNY at the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars; Gardiner was influential in helping Scheck land a postdoctoral position under Ralph McInerny at the Jacques Maritain Center of the University of Notre Dame. From 2004-2006, he was Post-Doctoral Research Associate and Adjunct Visiting Professor at the University of Notre Dame. During this period, Scheck was able to get his thesis, Origen and the History of Justification: The Legacy of Origen’s Commentary on Romans(2008), accepted for publication with the University of Notre Dame Press. He also taught four classes in the Theology and Classics Departments and translated Origen’s homilies on Numbers and Ezekiel.
Scheck began teaching with Ave Maria University in 2006 in the IPT program (the Institute for Pastoral Theology). In 2008 he moved down from South Bend to the Ave Maria campus, where he teaches courses ranging in subject matter from Elementary German to Sacred Scripture to Patristic Exegesis of St. Paul. In 2008, he published a translation of St. Jerome’s Commentary on Matthew with The Catholic University of America Press. Two years later, his translation of St. Pamphilus’s Apology for Origen was published by the same press. His translation of Origen’s Homilies 1-14 on Ezekiel was accepted for publication by Newman Press in 2010. Scheck proposed Origen’s Homilies on Numbers to Intervarsity Press’ new initiative, the Ancient Christian Texts series; it was accepted and published in 2009.
“When I told Intervarsity Press that I was working on St. Jerome’s commentaries, and that I was also interested in translating the commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, they invited me to become volume editor of a two-part series on Jerome’s commentaries on the Twelve Prophets. So I started recruiting Ave Maria University students to provide draft translations for the project that I could edit into good form. Volume 1 is now in production, and Volume 2 is almost complete.” Ave Maria students—both undergraduate and graduate—have provided translations for 10 of the 12 Minor Prophets.
St. Jerome studied under St. Gregory Nazianzus, who encouraged Jerome to begin his scholarly career by translating Origen’s Old Testament homilies from Greek into Latin. Scheck sees a parallel in his own scholarly career. “Origen is a very important source for Jerome’s exegesis. Surviving fragments of Origen’s Greek works confirm that Jerome, for the most part, often translated or adapted Origen’s Greek exegesis into Latin. In his prefaces, Jerome says he wants to present Origen to the Latin readership. … St. Jerome’s Latin exegesis, very much like St. Ambrose’s and St. Hilary of Poitier’s (but unlike St. Augustine’s), really represents far older exegesis, at least 200 years older than himself, because he’s transmitting interpretations that went back to Origen, or even further. Jerome shows the oneness of the Church’s faith,” Scheck continued. “That the Latin and Greek Church are really one in terms of the mind with which they interpret Scripture, and that they resist innovative interpretations. You don’t want to be creative; you want to preserve the Church’s understanding of the Prophets, or of Matthew or Galatians, Titus, Philemon, etc. I really admire that.”
In the same way, a translator today seeks not to provide his own interpretation, but to transmit the original author’s meaning. Translators of patristic texts into modern languages, such as Scheck, work to preserve the Church’s interpretation of Scripture for generations to come. They are custodians of Christian thought.
“I feel like this is my task,” Scheck concluded. “This is what God wants me to do with my life.”